Buttery soup and bacony chicken are the stars at Le Garde-manger, writes reviewer Kim Knight.
466 Queen St, Auckland
Ph: (09) 362 0655
WE SPENT: $189.50 for two.
WE THOUGHT: 13.5 - Good
Icy rain was scything the city, my ankles needed socks and the restaurant we had been heading to was closed for a private function.
For weeks, I'd been dreaming of a fireplace. I wanted a squashy armchair and someone in the next room doing something amazing with a duck. Instead, an electric heater. My chair was made from wood and rattan and, in the next room, there was a chicken.
It was not exactly my fantasy winter feasting scenario. Luckily, Le Garde-Manger was no ordinary port in an Upper Queen St storm. Chicken liver paté. Beef bourguignon. Gratin dauphinois. If the waitperson had worn a beret, I would not have been surprised. She did have a charming accent, which she used to charmingly correct mine. One of the (many) things to admire about the French is their sense of national pride. Sure, other countries have language and food. But do they have FRENCH language and food?
"Le Garde-Manger" translates as "The Pantry". It wears its Frenchness loud, those red-and-white checked tablecloths a lighthouse beacon for the wind-battered passerby. This is not so much a destination restaurant, as a handily placed eatery should you find yourself in the vicinity, craving snails.
I couldn't. I did it once in Avignon, so I know it's mostly like chewing garlic but my companion was mostly vegetarian and escargots were a definitive no-go. She had the broccoli and spinach soup ($12.50), which tasted like green, earthy butter and I had the onion soup ($12.50), which tasted like sweet, earthy butter.
France is the country that gave the Western world the five "mother" sauces. They have fancy names - bechamel, espagnole et al - but "boiled butter" would have also done the trick. Personally, I am all for a cuisine that fully embraces the flavour-carrying qualities of fat (you can always cut the richness with a wine) and these were the kind of soups that make winter bearable. Bonus points for the nostalgically covetable pottery bowls, best-paired with corduroy flares, a skinny-rib jumper and a middle hair part.
When it came to mains, my mostly vegetarian friend was not spoiled for choice. There was a potato gratin that could, apparently, be served sans bacon and there was also - well, nothing, unless she wanted a galette.
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The pan-fried fish special ($29.50) was sea perch. I've recently learned some anglers call this species "flinger", an active verb reflecting the fact they'd rather be catching snapper. These days, we're encouraged to broaden our seafood palate. So, perch. Taut and juicy, and if your preference is for a soft flake, this is not the fish for you. In my professional opinion, this one needed more salt and (in my unprofessional opinion) zero parsnip. There are people who love this perversion of a carrot, however, I am not one of them. Also, this dish included actual carrot, mashed with cumin, which my friend declared "nice".
I had a knife and fork to eat my coq au vin ($29.50) but I could have used a spoon on the meat that was waxen and tender. It was a rich, chickeny plate with a background blur of bacon salt and fat, sweet, carroty grace notes and an occasional sharp clarity from the decorative strands of slightly pickled onion. Recommended.
In 2010, the French gastronomic meal was added to Unesco's world lists of "intangible cultural heritage". Think France, think family, friends and four courses including pudding. Who were we to argue with the natural order of events? The creme brulee ($12.50) was a decent example of the genre - the topping yielded under a gentle tap, the filling a silky and smooth custard. The tarte tatin ($12.50) was less enjoyable. It's possible I've been doing this dish all wrong but the apple was cold, the pastry was cakey and I had set my taste buds for hot, crisp and flaky. More butter, s'il vous plait.